Fairplex Harness Plan Worries Thoroughbred Interests

Thoroughbred owners and trainers are willing to forgo racing dates at the State Fair in Sacramento this summer to allow for harness racing, but moving out of Fairplex Park for a new harness meet in Southern California is another matter.

On March 7, the California Horse Racing Board dates committee approved the California State Fair's request to host a harness meet this summer and lease its Thoroughbred and mixed breed dates to another fair association. But the committee delayed its decision on allocating harness racing dates after July 31, when Capitol Racing's lease to operate the harness meet in Sacramento expires.

The dates panel must choose between new operator Sacramento Harness Association at Cal Expo or Capitol's proposal for four months at Fairplex, home of the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

"This is not an easy decision," commissioner Richard Shapiro said. "The harness industry needs to be fortified. But we need some more time to study these proposals."

The dates committee is expected to meet again on the harness proposals March 23, then submit its recommendation to the CHRB for the board's March 24 meeting at Bay Meadows.

Fairplex plans to bring harness racing back to the Southern California market. The trotters and pacers haven't raced in the Los Angeles area since Los Alamitos discontinued its meet in 2000.

If Pomona hosts a harness meet, it would displace almost 600 Thoroughbreds that train at Fairplex year-round. That would cause major headaches for trainers who would have to scramble for affordable stalls at off-season tracks.

"If the Thoroughbred horses are forced to leave, it will create tremendous logistical problems," said Drew Couto of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "Just like harness racing, the Thoroughbred industry in this state is very fragile."

One suggested plan called for five moves in four months at a total cost of $300,000.

"A number of Thoroughbred owners are irate," said Rod Blonien, who represents several owners who use Fairplex to prep young horses for other tracks. "Many trainers live in Pomona. They're looking at 30 days at Hollywood Park, then 45 days at Santa Anita. They see the whole thing as a major hassle. As one of them said to me, 'Why not just go to New Mexico?' "

Fairplex, with a five-eighths-mile track, last hosted harness racing in 1987. The track is best known for its Los Angeles County Fair meet each September. Fair association president Jim Henwood said the Inland Valley's population boom could benefit a return of harness racing.

"There are now nine million people within 30 miles of Fairplex," Henwood said.

Capitol Racing has been negotiating with Fairplex since November, Capitol general manager Alan Horowitz said. Since 1995, Capitol has grown the Cal Expo meet from 10 weeks to 10 months a year. But the company decided not to bid on three more years in Sacramento. Instead, Capitol partnered with Fairplex to create a proposed 69-night meet from Oct. 7 through Jan. 28, 2006.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Harness Association signed a three-year, $8.5-million contract with the State Fair board to take over the Cal Expo harness lease beginning Sept. 23. The first year's lease guarantees $2.1 million in rent, plus $200,000 in facility improvements.

While Capitol continued its fight with Los Alamitos over impact fees for simulcasts, purses at Cal Expo dropped 30% in the last year.

Standardbreds have taken two months off in recent years to make way for the State Fair's annual Thoroughbred meet, set this year for Aug. 24-Sept. 5. With both breeds unable to share the same surface, the fair hasn't featured harness racing since 1967.

For the 2005 fair, the Cal Expo board requested the unusual switch on a one-time experimental basis to give the Sacramento-based harness horsemen some much-needed financial help and a true year-round home. The fair would operate the special twilight meet itself beginning Aug. 12. It could then lease its Thoroughbred dates to another association, such as the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, Sonoma County Fair at Santa Rosa, or San Mateo County Fair at Bay Meadows.

Representatives of Thoroughbred owners, breeders, and trainers said they could support the State Fair switch, depending on which fair gets the dates. Some Sacramento-based owners saw it as a the loss of their rare "home field advantage."

If Fairplex gets the fall harness dates, the State Fair's plan would fall apart and the Thoroughbreds would be back in Sacramento in August. "If the harness dates go to Fairplex, then we're not interested," Cal Expo general manager Norbert Bartosik said. "It won't work."

The small Standardbred population in California would make overlapping meets impossible.